As is our tradition, we’re finishing out the year with a Christopher Nolan film. Part of what I like to do in Bible class is teach cultural criticism, and appreciation of good storytelling and cinematography. So, two years ago it was Inception. Last year it was The Prestige. And now Interstellar.
I was perhaps over-hyped by it last fall but thoroughly enjoyed seeing it in theaters. It begged for further analysis, but I had other things to focus on. With summer coming and now the fact that I’ll watch it three times in the next week, I’ve collected some articles from around the web for further reading. I also picked up The Science of Interstellar because I really wanna know how plausible it all is (spoiler: it’s at least plausible, it not yet possible)
If humanistic pop science is a religion, then Christopher Nolan is its high priest and “Interstellar” its rapture story. This ambitious film with magnificent scope and epic images is less an adventure story and more an exposition of a frothy, inch-deep, godless faith that science alone can save and yet that love conquers all, even science.
My films are always held to a weirdly high standard for those issues that isn’t applied to everybody else’s films—which I’m fine with. People are always accusing my films of having plot holes, and I’m very aware of the plot holes in my films and very aware of when people spot them, but they generally don’t.
To me it seems that Interstellar, perhaps more than any of Nolan’s films to date, positively resounds with religious—even Christian—stuff that might not ring as loudly if you weren’t steeped in it to begin with.
To wit: Cooper promises Murph he’ll return to earth, and she despairs of his return, then realizes he’s been talking to her and guiding her all along, which rings awfully sharply of the early Christian church’s assumption that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. And Cooper communicates with Murph through books (hello). He has “become” one of those beings who exists on more than three planes—you know, for a while at least, he’s omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent. There’s the somewhat unavoidable new-Adam-and-Eve imagery near the end. And did anyone hear echoes of Lewis’s Space Trilogy?
If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives of those atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.
It could be argued that Interstellar is a product of how far humanity has come. In his ninth feature film, Christopher Nolan stretches technology to a near breaking point, producing a visceral absorption of sight and awe-producing sound (and silence). Narratively speaking, Interstellar also presents human technology at its highest heights, it’s outermost point of human evolution. Man can go farther than they have ever gone before, reaching the ends of the galaxy, and more. Just like technological advancement isn’t what keeps its characters scratching and crawling for life, Interstellar is a humanistic film grasping for something more. It pushes us to look to the stars. And when we do, we’ll find something bigger than ourselves.
One of the taglines, and most memorable lines in the film, is that ‘mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.’ In Interstellar, the world is broken, and mankind’s solution is to find a new earth. Their journey between the stars (hence the title) is guided by a mysterious force, which they guess to be some kind of multidimensional being, a force that wants to save humans from their fate and provide them with a new earth and a second chance. Where many films are concerned with our own personal mortality, this makes the picture a whole lot bigger: what is humanity’s purpose, and where will it go when it all ends here on earth? The existence of God and the book of Revelation make sci-fis like this somewhat redundant, as Christians have a hope of a new earth that will replace this current broken planet, but it’s refreshing to see mainstream blockbuster cinema grappling with such weighty themes. The astronauts in this film aim to find a new planet somewhere light years away from this earth, but the hope of those who read Revelation 21 is that instead of finding us a new home, this one we currently live on will be perfected and made new, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more for the former things have passed away.” Instead of vague multidimensional beings who will provide a new home for us, it’s the God who created us in the first place, making all things right. Yet what both the film and Revelation agree on is that this earth isn’t going to last forever, and that something is fundamentally broken that needs to be fixed. It’s important to work out what, then, is mankind’s next step.
Lastly, Christopher Nolan was a guest editor of Wired, leading to these posts:
By the time Christopher Nolan signed up to direct Interstellar and started rewriting its script, astrophysicist Kip Thorne had been working with Nolan’s brother, Jonathan (who goes by Jonah), on getting his ideas onto film for years. When Chris and Thorne met, they quickly found common ground: Thorne wanted science in the story, and Nolan wanted the story to emerge from science. So in Interstellar, time dilation—the passing of time at different rates for different observers—became an emotional obstacle between a father and his daughter. Quantum gravity, the reconciliation of relativity and quantum mechanics, became the plot’s central mystery. The visual effects team even collaborated with Thorne to make sure their depictions of a black hole were accurate as well as elegant.
To get ahead in life, spend some time on the International Space Station. Why? Well, according to the theory of relativity, astronauts on the ISS age more slowly due to the spacecraft’s high orbital speed. It’s called time dilation, and it means that when they return they’re a bit younger than they would have been—as if they’ve traveled into the future. (The effect is very small—it would take more than 100 years on the ISS to warp ahead by just one second.) But not all space travel will keep you young. Like speed, gravity also slows time, so your clock revs up as you get farther from a large mass like Earth. As a result, satellites in higher orbits age more quickly. Got your heart set on space travel but want to age at a normal, earthly pace? Good news! There’s a sweet spot, 3,174 kilometers above Earth’s surface, where the effects of increased speed and reduced gravity cancel each other out. You can hang out there as long as you like without fear of relativistic shenanigans.
Before Cooper left his daughter to find humanity a new home in space, there were the Lazarus missions. Led by Dr. Mann, this was NASA’s first attempt to locate a hospitable exoplanet. So what happened to Mann on the other side of the wormhole? We teamed Christopher Nolan with award-winning comic-book artist Sean Gordon Murphy to tell Mann’s story.